Mindfulness Could Help Weight Loss in Obese Individuals

Liam Davenport

December 20, 2018

Obese individuals who are struggling to achieve weight loss while attending traditional weight loss programmes could achieve significantly better results if they are also taught mindfulness techniques, suggest the results of a UK study.

Dr Petra Hanson, a research fellow at Warwickshire Institute for the Study of Diabetes Endocrinology and Metabolism at University Hospital Coventry, asked more than 50 obese people referred to a weight loss programme to also attend mindfulness sessions.

Those who completed the 4-week course had significantly greater weight loss at 6 months, more than those who did not complete the course, and also more than the group of patients who were not offered the awareness training.

Moreover, the study, which was published by the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism on 18th December, showed that people who completed the mindfulness course had greater self-esteem, greater self-confidence around weight loss, and a better relationship with food.

Mindfulness and Wellbeing

Senior author of the paper Thomas Barber, also of the Warwickshire Institute for the Study of Diabetes Endocrinology and Metabolism, said in a release: "Mindfulness has huge potential as a strategy for achieving and maintaining good health and wellbeing."

He added: "With the burgeoning impact of 21st Century chronic disease, much of which relates to lifestyle behaviour choices, it is logical that focus should be on enabling the populace to make appropriate lifestyle decisions, and empowering subsequent salutary behaviour change.

"In the context of obesity and eating-related behaviours, we have demonstrated that mindfulness techniques can do just that."

Speaking to Medscape News UK, Hanson said that she was "not surprised" by the magnitude of the results, as the participants had "gained additional skills".

These include "being aware of emotional triggers to eating, developing greater self-compassion and self-acceptance, and strategies that help with getting back on track following a ‘bad food day’".

Hanson continued: "We know that patients who develop obesity tend to engage in mindless eating, often having their meals in front of TV, eating when not hungry and choosing food as a comfort in times of stress."

'Massive Potential'

Pointing out that being more aware of eating patterns in the moment is not "about any particular diet per se", she said that mindfulness has "massive potential" to help achieve weight loss over the longer term, not least through increasing self-confidence.

Dan Howarth, Head of Care at the charity Diabetes UK, which was not involved in the research, commented: "This study suggests that mindfulness could be a useful tool in helping people to lose weight and maintain healthy eating habits."

He told Medscape News UK that Diabetes UK’s DiRECT study had shown that "carefully managed weight loss can put some people’s type 2 diabetes into remission".

"So it’s vital that we find out more about psychosocial aids to weight loss, such as mindfulness, to help make remission a realistic option for as many people living with type 2 diabetes as possible."

Mindfulness Goes Mainstream

Mindfulness, or focusing on experiences in the present moment, has become a widely adopted technique in recent years, not only in the realm of psychotherapy but also in chronic pain, depression, and anxiety.

While lifestyle changes remain, in the words of the researchers, a "cornerstone of weight-loss management" for individuals who are obese, they are difficult to implement and are not associated with long-term successes.

They therefore set out to determine whether mindfulness could modify an individual’s relationship with food and eating-related behaviours, and their self-confidence around weight loss.

Study Details

The team recruited 53 adults with a body mass index (BMI) >35 kg/m2 who were recently referred to a ‘tier 3’ specialist weight management service at their teaching hospital between 2016 and 2017.

The participants attended four group sessions, at which mindfulness-based eating behaviours were taught.

Self-reported eating behaviour and body weight were assessed at baseline, after completion of the group sessions, and at 6 months’ follow-up.

Of the 53 participants, 33 completed all four mindfulness sessions.

Completers were less likely to be male than those non-completers (defined as attending only one or two sessions), at 21.2% versus 45.0%, and were slightly younger, at a mean age of 44.4 years versus 47.7 years for non-completers.

Completers were also lighter at baseline than non-completers, at 126.3 kg versus 147.7 kg (p=0.03), and had a lower mean BMI, at 46.5 kg/m2 versus 51.6 kg/m2 (p=0.05).

The team notes that completers lost significantly more weight during follow-up, at an average loss at 6 months over baseline of 3.1 kg (p=0.002) versus 0.9 kg among the non-completers (p=0.34).

Completion of the mindfulness course was also associated with a significant improvement in overall self-reported eating style of 14.3 points (4%; p=0.009), which was primarily driven by changes in attitudes towards fast food.

Next, the team compared completers with a retrospective control group of 33 individuals referred to the weight loss programme but who did not undergo mindfulness training.

They found that completers lost an average of 2.85 kg more weight than controls over the same length of follow-up (p=0.036), with controls having lost an average of just 0.21 kg.

Participants in mindfulness also reported that they had enjoyed the sessions, valuing the social interaction with other patients, and had experienced improvements in self-compassion, self-esteem, self-respect, and self-value.

They also said they were better able to plan meals in advance and felt more confident in the self-management of weight loss.

No funding or conflicts of interest declared.

J Clin Endo Metab 2018: jc.2018-00578. doi: 10.1210/jc.2018-00578


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